By Kipaya Kapiga
Corruption is not a new force in the Indian political landscape, but the current public outcries are very strong. During the two months, it was rare to not catch glimpse of an anti-corruption themed headline. The detrimental economic and political effects of corruption are well documented and certainly don’t need to be rehashed here. The situation for India is made all the more precarious by the fact that foreign businesses are a key component of the country’s economic growth strategy. A March 10th article in The Economist cited bureaucratic and political corruption as a barrier to foreign investment second only to India’s struggling infrastructure. The current public fervor isn’t new, but still reveals key lessons about the role the social sector can play in the fight against corruption.
The current Indian anti-corruption movement is among the largest ever organized in India’s history and encompasses a series of protests centered on a proposed bull known as the Jan Lokpal Bill. The bill, which many of the protesters believe could effectively tackle the problem of corruption so long as it is properly worded and enforced, calls for the creation of an ombudsman known as the Lokpal that would serve as an independent body with the authority to investigate political leaders without prior government support. A compromised version of the bill that merges the Government and civil sectors’ versions is currently being drafted. Although this is not the first Lokpal bill to be proposed – indeed versions on this proposal have been introduced without success in 1971, 1977, 1985, 1989, 1996, 1998, 2001, 2005 and 2008 – the current movement has gained significant momentum when social activist Anna Hazare went on a hunger strike in April.
Hazare boasts quite an impressive activist portfolio. Shortly after retiring from the army at the age of 39, Hazare retired from military service to his home of Ralegaon Siddhi, a village in Maharashtra, where he began a decades-long process of activism that transformed the village from a struggling rural region prone to droughts to a model village of development. It was there that Hazare first began his fight against corruption, using non-violent protests, usually in the form of hunger protests. Today he has become in many ways the face of India’s anticorruption movement, leveraging his immense base of support to challenge even the highest levels of India’s political apparatus. In one sense, he has achieved something many social ventures struggle with: achieving scale without losing sight of the mission.
As humbling as this experience has been for some of India’s political elite, it also raises some serious questions about the role the social sector can play in political reform. Social entrepreneurs are usually concerned with the long term and will often run their organization in such a way as to promote system change. Hazare, as revered a social activist as he is, is a political outsider. This status no doubt makes him more favorable in the eyes of ordinary Indians, but it also means that Hazare may necessarily be the best man for the job of weeding out corruption. Most social entrepreneurs are accustomed to thinking about their role within a given ecosystem. Some of the most successful social ventures in the world are ones that are able to both serve their constituents and conduct advocacy and policy work at the same time. Indeed, one way in which the Ashoka Foundation measures the success of its entrepreneurs is by assessing their impact on the system as a whole. In the case of corruption, I think the question needs to be asked of whether or not Hazare is the man for the job.
An article in Youth Ki Awaaz, a web-based youth media and news organization, touches on a couple of these concerns including whether or not the idea of a single, autonomous anti-corruption organization isn’t undemocratic itself and whether or not Hazare is making the right demands. The author posits two arguments, the first of which is the idea of Lokpal is undemocratic and if such an organization were created, it would likely fall into the hands of corrupt politicians once the anti-graft fervor had quieted down. If the problem is systemic, how will the Lokpal ameliorate the problem? The second argument is that Hazare isn’t making the right demands. From the writer’s perspective, Hazare’s demands have been two-fold: that the government not turn a blind eye to the anti-corruption movement and that the government not implement its own version of the Lokpal. The writer concludes that a “mellowed” version of the Lokpal be implemented as well as policies to increase transparency at all levels though they remain unclear on the specifics of how this could be achieved.
As I understand it, Hazare’s movement, like any social venture, has been about empowering ordinary citizens to challenge political authority and to hold leaders to high standards. In that sense, he has been a powerful force for good. I’m less certain that that’s all that’s needed for real reform and I’m unconvinced that Hazare has the political sway and experience to negotiate the taciturn world of Indian politics. Corruption is an incredibly complex issue that no country on Earth is completely free from. This is only one of interpreting the situation. Hazare has opened the door for a lot of previously marginalized Indians to get involved in the political process. I’ve been harder pressed to find evidence of wide-scale institutional reform that will formalize and protect those kinds of transparency-enforcing mechanisms in the long term. It’s not difficult for the government to listen now with the threat of hunger strikes and protest in the air, but it will be much easier once the climate has returned to some semblance of normalcy.
For a recent article in the NYTimes click here